It was an old Terran saying that thieves always returned to the scene of the crime. Mane was thinking about that as she barreled across massive hallways protruding from the back of a great beast. Her entire lower body had been subsumed into Effus' back the instant she consented to being carried, and in the blink of an eye Effus' shape hunched over and fluidly became that of a quadruped. The immense beast of bark and vine sprinted with surprising agility and implausible grace past doors and windows and other affini.
This was when Mane remembered that she was scared of heights. The minimal actual contact Effus was somehow making with her legs did little to distract from hurtling through the air seven feet high with no visible safety measures. She screamed and grabbed at Effus' back as hard as she could. White halls and green flora and shops and stands and crowds and collars whisked by too fast for Mane to register them. The air whistled as she hurtled through it, lower in pitch thanks to the affini-adjusted atmosphere.
"AaaaaAAAAA!!" Mane cried, literally, digging her nails into Effus. Thorns pricked at her and the pain stung like betrayal, even though she knew it shouldn't. Her fingers struggled to get a good grip on the round, resinous vines and her palms hissed at her in disgust at the texture greeting them, but she grabbed as hard as she could regardless. She kept slipping, kept getting cut and scraped and scratched. The blur around her threatened to close in and rip her from Effus and throw her to the floor and break her. She screamed, she cried, she struggled. The vines around her legs weren’t touching her much and her brain screamed that they weren’t secure but struggling against them only made it feel more like she was going to fall off any second now. She cried harder and harder as the fight ebbed out of her body.
She was being punished. If not by Effus, then by whatever cruel mathematical force governed her life. She wanted to complain, she wanted to beg Effus to stop, she wanted she wanted she wanted she wanted-
A sound reverberated up out of the vines and seemed to speak not into Mane's ears but her skin. "Is everything alright?" It asked from somewhere in her bones. Mane couldn't concentrate enough to process the words and continued screaming.
The four legged wolflike creature that Effus currently was came to a stop down the hall from where the Greshul ship was being held. This was in the human part of the ship, which she had crossed into briefly beforehand. The walls and ceiling were less spacious and humans meandered across the plain grey floors in packs of two or three. There was much chatting between them. Of this, Effus picked up a phrase being tossed around which was new to her: "sun of Cain." Maybe it was a name for the star Terra orbited, she figured, or a dish that the cafeteria was serving.
It didn't matter. Mane's cuffs were going haywire. The poor little human was properly curled into a ball, digging her sad little nails into Effus' vines. She could feel her thorns tearing into the poor thing's skin, and she could feel little bits of saltwater being absorbed into-
Oh. Oh no.
"Please put me down…" Mane whimpered. She sounded sad and shaky, her voice a ghost of the booming thing she screamed with. She gasped in between violent bouts of blubbering. Effus realized some of her vines were displaced.
Mane had been trying to claw free.
"Little one…" she whispered, guilt snaking out through her body. Her flowers seemed to lose their color. "What's wrong?"
"Put me down…" Mane sobbed. Her body shook. It was limp and pliable in her vines. "Please put me down, I'm sorry I'll be a good slave please just put me down…"
“Dearrrr,” Effus whispered in a soothing voice. Her body wriggled and loosened and Mane’s slipped through new soft gaps in the plant matter. “Pets, not slaves. Our pets aren’t slaves, okay? They’re treated with nothing but love and compassion.” She delicately wrapped a vine around each of Mane’s shoulders and lowered the poor sobbing human towards the ground, making sure to shift out of the way but provide a gentle platform made of flowers to support Mane’s lower body, the same way a human holding a cat might support their bottom with one hand. Mane nodded vigorously, tears still streaming down her eyes as she adopted a forced smile.
“Yes, yes,” she said with a fake laugh, still crying but gently now, “I understand, I follow, pets not slaves you’re totally right I’ll be a good pet I promise please put me down I won’t freak out or yell at you anymore I’m a worthless little human.” She trembled violently. Her eyes were frantically zipping about in an erratic pattern. She was searching in vain for eyes or a mouth or any kind of indication her begging would have any effect. “I give up you can ignore my demands they’re not important just please let me go back to Aria-”
“Shhhhhh, little human. It’s alright. I’m sorry. Are you scared?” Effus attempted to soothe her ward by asking. Mane bit her lip and refused to answer. The plant engulfing her set her feet on the floor and split apart into a mass of writhing leaves and flowers and bark which danced formless for a few seconds before it massed back together into the shape of a seven feet tall human. Seeing Mane still afraid, Effus adjusted her height back down to five feet. “There, there. It’s okay. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, darling. Did I frighten you?” Mane didn’t want to answer. It felt so pathetic, so wrong to be blubbering to this alien like it had any reason to give a shit about her. She tried not to think about what her father had said which inspired her freak out. She thought about it anyway.
“I’ve been talking to your friend’s mother! Her child just up and fucking LEFT her to go be dissolved by those goddamn aliens! You wanna do that to YOUR mother too!? I’ll turn this goddamn ship around and tell them you’ve been helping the rebels! You think they’ll listen to you? You think they WANT you!? You saw the kind of humans they keep as pets, they’ll give up on you in an hour and grind you into fertilizer for their children. You want that!? It would be easier for me to just ditch you here! NOW SHUT UP AND STOP WHINING!”
Mane clung to her sides, trying desperately not to cry. She wasn’t having a flashback, she wasn’t there in her mind, but the emotions were boiling up fresh except this time all her reserves of incandescent fury were dry and the fear and sorrow watersheds were broken and she was being flooded and she was sorry and she was scared and she fucked up and-
A flower was in front of her nose. Mane instinctively held her breath. It stopped the sobbing, but her jaw kept twitching without her consent.
“It’s not drugs,” Effus explained. “It's hypnotic. If I spin this it’ll make patterns that will help relax certain parts of your brain a little and make it easier to deal with the fear. Is that okay?” Mane nodded. The flower started to whirl and twirl. Its browns and reds and greens smeared together in her vision and images and patterns seemed to fluidly pop in and out of the blurs of its motion. They reached into her brain and massaged it. The fear loosened its grip on her and she was able to steady her breathing, slowly, as it sent more and more of the pretty patterns past her eyes.
Her brain stopped feeling like ice and her strains slipped away. The two spent a minute just standing there together and letting the therapeutic pretty lights heal Mane’s heart until her cuffs returned to normal again. Effus tried not to think about the tidal wave of notifications her tablet was going to have by the end of the day. After a moment Mane shook her head and seemed to break free of her stupor. That surprised Effus but rather than push the topic she simply shifted the flower along her body to its resting spot and then spoke.
“Alright. You wanna get your things?” Effus asked. Mane nodded. She wanted to get her things. The now humanoid Effus turned and led her the rest of the way down the hall to two women in white uniforms. Effus recognized them as something of a rarity: non-florets who eagerly worked on both sides of the ship and actively enjoyed affini company. She smiled at them and came to a stop at the entrance. She signed something in TSSL at the one on the right, who she knew to be deaf, using an extra arm sprouted from her shoulder on that side. Mane recognized TSSL but, not knowing it herself, was unable to tell that what Effus had signed was “This poor dear is emotional, please give her extra room and patience.”
The guard smiled and signed back, “But of course, Lady Effuslucia Second Bloom. I hope she feels better soon and I have full confidence in your care’s ability to make it happen.” The two stepped away from the entryway to the Confiscated Materials Hangar and uncrossed the showy prop halberds that they’d giddily insisted on when they arrived on the ship. The things were a gaudy reddish orange, almost off-gold sort of color and very obviously not designed for combat. The curved blades and rifles at their hips were much more practical, although those would be roughly equal in their efficacy against affini.
“A pleasure to see you as always, Effuslucia,” said the guard on the left. Effus nodded and ushered Mane into the hangar.
It took a moment, in the big bay full of confiscated ships and materials, for the two of them to find the ship that Mane had been taken from. It was a sleek human design, five or ten years old, with engines that were far in excess of civilian access or military common use at the time. It had excellent speed and turning for a human ship of its year of origin, and fuck all of anything else-least of all safety.
“I can’t believe anyone would put a poor little human in something so dangerous,” growled Effus at the thought of someone endangering Mane by putting her in there. Mane nodded awkwardly along.
“Yes Master, ahahahaha,” she muttered, “absolutely unbelievable, you’re right.” Effus paused and looked down at Mane, who was struggling to remember how to get the ramp leading inside the ship to come down. Something about what the human girl had just said...didn’t sit right with her. It took her a moment to pinpoint what exactly she should say in response.
“You don’t have to call me that, Mane,” she hummed with her rustling flowers and shaking leaves. “Please just relax. That silly promise you made was unnecessary and offered under duress. No affini would ever be so cruel as to hold you to such an agreement, in the state you were in. I promise that no harm will befall you.” Mane sighed with relief and leaned on the side of her late father’s ship as a heavy, terrified breath escaped from her.
“Thank you…” she panted. “Can you get me in there?”
“Of course.” Effus simply massed some of her extra vines up at the end of one hand and raised it to the ship. Fingers and vines together formed a gigantic, many-fingered hand which seized hold of the entire ramp. The ship’s metal was light and well-polished, meaning that the scream of it shearing apart was quieter than it could have been. Still, as she ripped the entire means of entry out of a spacefaring vessel by physically tearing it out with one hand, it shrieked and sparked and made a show for anyone watching. Mane flinched heavily and covered her ears, a sight that hurt Effus deeply. She froze where she was in her work. “I’m sorry little one! Are you okay?” Mane nodded yes but she seemed disoriented and she was clasping at her ears. Effus chose to give her some privacy just this once. She placed her hand on the floor. “Here, let me lift you up.”
Mane was pacing back and forth in the ship. She kept glancing in the same direction, wandering towards the wall, wandering away, doing that over and over. The white insides of the ship were barren and dirty. Coffee mugs and boots and empty wrappers littered the floor. A red coat with fake fur was hanging from Mane’s shoulders now, and it gave her a significantly bigger silhouette. Effus was watching her through the gap she’d made in the entryway of the ship. It wasn’t much that much bigger than your typical one-person craft, but it wasn't based on one of those. It was a scaled up fighter without any guns. This one had a makeshift second seat added which was just, atrocious to look at. This pathetic thing did not have room for two grown humans.
“I’ve found everything.” Mane said, hair over her eyes. “Let me out.”
“But Mane,” whined a concerned Effus, “You said you left two things in the ship. There’s your coat, what else?”
“You have your numbers wrong,” Mane shot down at her from between her teeth. Effus glanced up at her, feeling something hurt her soul. Mane was lying. Effus knew this human language perfectly well and was certain what mathematical value the word “two” served as the title of. It was not the number of things Mane had found. She felt a growing frustration that she couldn’t just stuff one of her many perfectly good flowers in Mane’s face and make her understand how safe and loved she was and lower those obnoxious barriers the poor thing insisted on keeping between herself and what she wanted. It wasn’t fair! This poor thing deserved so much better! She deserved the world!
“No, I-no, sweetheart. I know how much one is. One is the number of humans in the ship right now, one is also the number of humans it should seat. By contrast, two is the number of humans it does seat. You found your coat. That’s one thing. What’s the second?”
“It’s not here. I guess I dropped it somewhere.” Mane sighed and came to the entrance. “Carry me out.” Effus had no choice but to comply. When the two were walking out, Mane glanced back at the ship once or twice. Effus felt her core sink. Something valuable to her was still in there and she wasn’t getting it. She considered starting a confrontation, but decided against it. That would be terribly unfair to the poor darling. Mane’s body language was still reclusive, after all. She was holding the coat against herself almost like a blanket, and her legs were shaky and uncertain. Effus desperately wanted to reach out and take the little human’s hand, reassure her that everything was going to be alright and that she’d be hooked up with class-G’s and given lots of good food to eat and a comfortable home with a doting owner where nothing could ever hurt her again. The human’s SOS message played in her mind, narrated in Mane’s voice. It hurt her even worse now that she knew what a wreck the sender was. In the form of a transmission via text it had still been obviously distressed and chaotic, but...it had completely failed to get across just how much the poor girl was hurting. “Poor sophont…” she murmured under her breath. They passed the two guards and she saw the one she’d exchanged signs with earlier signing at her again.
“The girl is wanted by command,” the guard spelled out with her hands. “Not immediately, they just want an interview.” Effus did That Thing she did that she was told roughly equated to a sigh. She would actually sigh-imitating human body language was fun-but she preferred not to let Mane let on anything she didn’t have to. They wanted to talk to Mane? That tracked. She had filled out paperwork after returning to work, but she knew that a civilian with a body count was...rare here. They usually came seeking asylum, too. Mane, though...Mane wasn’t doing that, she didn’t think. She wasn’t sure Mane had a plan of any kind. The interview would wait until morning, and if they wanted it sooner they’d have to pry her ward from her soft protective vines. Preferably while said charge was consensually drugged into a soft cozy sleep full of happy fluffy dreams, but somehow that seemed unlikely.
Effus signed back, using not one or two but five hands in a flurry of information that this guard had proven remarkable at understanding (somehow!), "Mane says she left two things in the ship. She only got one. She kept looking at the far wall. Something important is there, FIND IT. Please? I'll reward you for your kindness, I promise." The guard nodded with a look of eager determination. Effus fought the urge to fawn over them and gave her full attention back to Mane instead.
Mane walked a long way into the ship. She was going the wrong way but Effus didn’t have the heart to correct her. She wandered into a hallway with some shops, walked past them, saw a fountain and came to a stop. Human and affini both stood still and appreciated it. It was a smooth stone affair, with water spouting up from three geometric shapes onto artificial little rock cliffs that channeled it down into a small sort of pond below. The water’s sounds and the sparkling of the pretty little pebbles in the bottom of the pond were both rather soothing to the senses. Mane slowly relaxed. Her coat moved as she gripped the sides and pulled it in tighter against herself.
“He’s dead...he’s gone. I killed him.” She wasn’t talking to Effus. She wasn’t talking to anyone, for that matter. Effus didn’t think she was, anyway. It didn’t seem like she had an actual audience. She lowered her face and her weight swayed from side to side. The coat swished along with her every time she changed direction. “Sorry, mom. I-”
“So out of interest of completing your fourth demand,” Effus spoke up awkwardly.
“AHHH!” Mane jumped like her skeleton had been spring-loaded and then launched straight up. She twisted in the air to face Effus, but then landed on the coat. This made her lose balance and stumble backwards towards the fountain. “I forgot you were there-AAH!” She tripped again, over the little stone wall of the fountain this time. She just about tipped her entire body over to fall into it when a vine, just barely touching her, swooped around her torso into a hook and caught her. She remained rigid, leaning against that vine with her eyes shut, for a second. Slowly it dawned on her that she wasn’t falling. “O...oh, this is...embarrassing…”
“You’re tired, little one,” said Effus. “Would you like to go to bed?”
“I...would,” Mane murmured. “Do you have any...um...any safe non-habit forming xenodrugs that help you sleep? I...think I might need some. I’m sorry.”
“Shhhh,” said Effus, trying to hide how excited she was. One might argue this wasn’t really progress, as she’d expressed willingness to use xenodrugs for her transition, but Effus was just happy to see any kind of breakthrough at all. She pulled Mane back onto solid ground and took great care to secretly scoop up the coat with extra vines so the water never touched it. It was clearly important to Mane and therefore it was important to her. “Some of the security affini want to talk to you tomorrow, about your father. Terran security probably does too. Is that okay?”
“It was inevitable.” Mane sighed. “And yes…” She stood still as Effus retracted her vines (slowly, to avoid spooking the poor thing). As the last of them pulled away, Mane reached out and grabbed it. Assertively, without hesitation. Some affini would dislike this show of arrogance, after how Mane had treated her. Effus was relieved. She made sure to adjust the vine and make its texture as soft and pleasant as possible. “I...I’m lost. Please lead me.”
“Of course, dearest little Mane,” Effus cooed. “Do you want to stand next to me, so you don’t feel like you’re being dragged along?” Mane froze. Her face contorted twice, once in and once out of pain. It froze just before she could get it normal again and then twitched violently. She struggled to maintain composure. Effus could see her fighting it, fighting so hard not to do something completely normal and extremely healthy, but in the end she just too tired. She just barely squeezed out,
“y...yes please…” and started crying again. That was okay. They seemed like good tears this time. Effus gently led Mane back to their habitation pod. It was going to be Mane’s first night there, it was going to be Mane’s first night safe, and Effus would battle an older and stronger affini to the death before she was going to let that safety be anything short of absolute.
“There there, dear. You’ve fought so much, so hard. You don’t have to fight anymore. You’re safe here.” She reassured Mane in a whisper as they walked. Mane, reduced now to distantly spaced sniffles, could only nod her head. The two traveled a direct route across the ship, across the transitional area between its human and affini sections, and lastly across several hallways and corridors with the trademark affini opulence all about them. Mane's legs were starting to feel as tired as her eyes did. She fought a yawn, unsure why she did so but committing all her limited remaining faculties to it anyway. They could only do so much. Mane yawned. She hung her head low, and Effus squeezed the human's wrist gently by wrapping her vine around it.
Effus wanted to ask to carry her, but feared the question might set off some kind of trauma response. The poor little human had dealt with so much already on today alone. "Do your feet hurt, little one?" She asked softly. Mane shook her head softly. Effus kept going. Soon they were at her hab. She led Mane inside and saw that Aria had prepared an air mattress for the new human to use, complete with a pillow fort and a little nightlight. Suddenly, the extra xenodrug shampoo seemed entirely inadequate as a reward. Effus was truly blessed to have her one and only florette.
"Ehhhhhh...uuaaaaaaaawww…" Mane yawned. Her body was slack.
"May I tuck you in, little one?" Effus asked gently.
"Yes...please…" Mane answered.
"Shall I take your coat, so you don't-"
"No!" Mane tensed up. That was okay.
"That's okay, dear. I understand completely." Mane seemed to relax again.
"Alright, dear. Relax." Effus grasped Mane from all about and transposed her into the makeshift fortress. She pulled the sheets snug over.Mane's shoulders. "I have as many as four xenodrug flowers which match your preferred description. Any more qualifiers you'd like to add?"
"No side effects, good sleep," Mane asked. "Nothing lasting. No injection. Please."
"Good girl. I'm so proud of you." Effus rolled one pale orange flower up her arm to her fabricated palm. It was dull and bland looking but she'd always quite appreciated them. "Now let me put this over your mouth." She placed the flower over Mane's mouth and nose. Mane seemed to hold her breath. Effus's many other flowers pivoted in place. "You have to breathe it in, darling."
"Oh, right!" Mane laughed at herself. "That reminds...me…" her eyes dimmed. She rolled her head back but was trying to lift it. "M-me...of...th-this ti…" she was trying to get up. Trying to look Effus in the face. Awwwww.
"You can tell me in the morning, sweetheart." A mass of vines stroked Mane's hair and then pulled her head back onto the pillow. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Thaaaaa…"the lights in Mane's red weary eyes flickered off. She went limp, happy and content. It was all Effus could do not to squeal with joy and snap photos of her new little angel finally looking at peace.